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Property Rights as Social Justice Part II

Property Rights as Social Justice Part II
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john locke

Read Part I here.

Accompanying the somehow lawful state and nearly lawless state is the state of war. Such phenomena do not appear accidental. It does not seem overly difficult to recognize that, when properties are not legally protected, it is inevitable for the self-regarded stronger to seize them from the alleged weaker, causing resistance, hence endless wars. As Terry Anderson and Laura Huggins put it, in a world where rules and property rights are absent, “people race to capture valuable assets or expend precious time and effort fighting over ownership.”[1] Not all wars, of course, are greed-driven. There are wars under the banners of God or glory, or both. The vast majority of wars, however, are doubtlessly launched out of greed. Even the wars under the banners of God or glory are often disguised fights over possession of properties.

The state of war cannot last forever. As Thomas Hobbes professes, in such state, life would be “nasty, brutish, and short”.[2] Thus, human beings are either to stop it or to be destroyed by it. Fortunately, it seems that we have managed to make some progress toward the end of the state of war. The world we have today is more peaceful than before, despite the peace is still very fragile and, therefore, we still have a long way to go.

Paralleling the gradual progress in peace making is the evolution of the institution of property towards legally protected property rights. The historian has it that, when its giant wheel rolled into the twelfth century, history seemed prepared for a stunning leap that renders the millions of years before this moment largely sleepy. The formation of this momentum is signaled by the emergence of the urban municipality. While enjoying the wealth and technology the city brought about, the monarchy and noble showed little interest in running it. This left a power vacuum in the city. Its residents, mostly merchants, craftsmen and labors, thus took the responsibility to govern for themselves. Such autonomy afforded the city the pregnancy of the child called modernity, which has grown up rapidly and changed the entire world profoundly and astonishingly. With the growth of modernity unfolded a new chapter of the institution of property. Platt points out that the growth of the city inevitably gave the rise to private property ownership. Such ownership then replaced in the countryside the feudal structure of land ownership, for the sake of innovation to flourish and amassing personal wealth. The thirteenth century witnessed the appearance in England of the first version of modern legal form of property rights. By the eighteenth century, modern legal system protecting property rights was firmly laid down in both England and its colonies. Since then, legal protection of property rights, at least in some forms, has spread out to most parts of the world.[3] International territory boundaries have been more respected and, therefore, are more solid.

Do property rights have something to do with peace? Obviously, the latter can hardly be entirely attributed to the former. Few would deny, however, the enormous contribution of the latter to the former. The establishment of solid property rights largely eliminates a source of violent conflicts. This does not seem to be contradicted by facts. As we can see, international violent conflicts often occur among nations or regions where territory boundaries are in dispute, and domestic violent conflicts often occur among people or between people and state where property rights are undefined and not strictly enforced. On the contrast, violent conflicts are rare where territory boundaries are respected and property rights are defined and strictly enforced.

In addition to peace, prosperity is generally deemed another significant contribution of property rights to human life. At one of the series of lunch-hour talks held by the World Bank in the spring of 1990, Bethell told his audience that, if developing countries desire to grow their economy to the level of developed countries, such as the United States, it is essential for them to establish the legal regime similar to the United States’ that secure private property. [4] Terry Anderson and Laura Huggins indicate that property rights are a necessary condition for prosperity, because the individual will make greatest efforts to improve his life only if the fruit of his labour is unalienable.[5]

________

[1] Terry Anderson and Laura Huggins, Property Rights – A Practical Guide to Freedom & Prosperity, (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), P. 14.

[2] Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed., Edwin Curley. Cambridge: Hackett, 1994

[3] Rutherford Platt, Land Use and Society –Geography, Law, and Public Policy, revised ed. (London: Island Press, 2004) pp. 66, 79-80.

[4] Tom Bethell, The Noblest Triumph-Property and Prosperity through the Ages, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), p.1.

[5] Terry Anderson and Laura Huggins, Property Rights – A Practical Guide to Freedom & Prosperity, (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), P. 10.

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Xiaolin Zhong is a Masters student in Political Science at the University of Lethbridge. Xiaolin also holds a BA in Accounting and an MBA.

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